How you get your child to play independently in 7 simple steps
“Mom, mom, mom, look, mom, look, mom”, “mom, come play with me”, “mom, who is going to play with me?”, “mom, no one is playing with me (whiny voice)”.
Imagine if your child was able to play by themselves for 30 minutes. Imagine if they could find new activities when they got bored. Imagine they were able to focus on the same task for a long period of time. Imagine you had 30 or 45 minutes of uninterrupted time to yourself.
How to create a happy, independent, well-adjusted child
There is a way you can have all of these things – independent play.
When I became a mom, I thought that every moment my son was awake I needed to be talking to him, playing with him, interacting with him. He was about 6 months old before I learned about “independent play” from Valerie at Chronicles of a Babywise Mom. At first, it seemed at odds with what a mom should do – shouldn’t I focus on my baby all the time? But the more I read about it, the more I thought there might really be value to regularly doing independent play.
The research says that kids who are able to play independently:
Have a sustained attention span
Have better mental focus
Are more creative
Are more independent (seems kind of obvious – but worth noting)
Are better at problem solving
Are more creative
Are more organized
So I decided to give it a try. I was surprised – within a month, my 7 month old could play independently for 30-40 minutes, no fussing, no crying, just playing safely by himself in his bedroom. Almost immediately, I noticed that he also became less demanding of my attention when I was in the room, but not playing directly with him (e.g., when I was making dinner). I was very good at maintaining this until a year, but once I went back to work full-time, I will admit I regressed a bit. Every few months I would need to go back to a more rigid approach to independent play. Once he got used to it again, I was so grateful and almost always said to myself “don’t let it go so long next time – do this regularly, it’s totally worth it”.
With my second, I knew I wanted to start right away. He was a very difficult newborn (colic, food intolerances, so not as great at independent play then, but by 5 months we was incredible. He could crawl, so he spent independent play in his crib, and happily played for 25-30 min. When our nanny started at 6 months, she couldn’t believe how he could play independently and be so happy about it. None of the other babies she worked with had been able to do this. Almost everyone who meets Michael comments on his independence and how well he plays by himself. I know part of this is his personality, but I believe that fostering that independent play really helps – and I definitely notice that he becomes much clingier when we skip a few days.
It is also a GREAT thing to do when you child is overstimulated. We had 12 people over for a family function and within a few hours my 11 month old was overwhelmed and overstimulated. I brought him to his room, put on his mobile, gave him a couple toys, put him in the crib and closed the door; 15 minutes later he was totally refreshed. This strategy can also really help with over-stimulation.
Independent play can be the answer to work-life balance, especially for working moms
Independent play is a great tool to help you achieve work-life balance and get some time to yourself, while setting your child up for life success. Even if you have never done independent play, it’s never too late to start.
1. Pick a time of day.
You want this to be consistent and predictable. For example, doing it after the first nap of the day. You don’t want your baby to be hungry or tired, so I always do it soon after a nap and after a feed. Right before dinner is not a good time.
2. Pick a place.
This should also be the same place every day, somewhere where they can safely plan on their own! Place a few toys in the space (not too many, I find 3-4 toys is plenty). Make sure they are all developmentally appropriate, definitely nothing too challenging. I also change the toys every day so my kids aren’t bored. You can put on some music, classical music is great for this.
3. Start independent play.
Be cheerful and positive. Tell your child what’s happening, even if they are too young to understand.
4. Set a timer.
Sometimes we use an egg timer, I'll be honest, I don't often use this. It works well when I'm starting of, especially with older kids, since they can understand that this is a time-limited activity and they will get my full attention afterwards.
5. How long?
If you are just starting, you can start small, 5 or 10 minutes, increasing it gradually every day until you reach the amount of time you are aiming for (see below).
6. What to do if they get fussy or upset.
Remember that each child is different, and every day is different. Some days my boys were still really happy at the end of the planned time, and others they were a little off and fussy early. Some people stick to the planned time even if the baby fusses. I give my boys a couple of minutes of fussing to see if they can resettle, but if they don’t I go in. Most of the time, even after a little fussing, they can solve the problem they were upset about or find something new to do, so I probably only shorten independent play about once a week.
7. The end.
After independent play is over, go in and clean up. If you child is old enough, have them clean up with you. Then play something together – giving your child your complete and undivided attention for a few minutes.
If you are consistent, within a few days you can make this a regular part of the routine.
Tip: Don’t rush in just because they are frustrated. Kids who can deal with their own frustration are more successful at school and later in life.
One of the most common questions is - how long should my child play independently?
These are adapted from Chronicles of a Babywise Mom:
From birth until they can sit independently: 5-20 minutes once or twice a day. Because waketimes are so short when they are young, you might only have time for 5-10 minutes in those first few weeks and months, but as they are awake longer you can start prolonging the time. You lay the baby on their back, be close so you can hear them, but at an angle that you are out of sight and they can't see you or hear you talking.
From sitting to crawling: 15-30 minutes once or twice a day. This is my favourite stage of independent play because you can do it almost anywhere, since they can’t crawl. I did it on the floor in my son’s room, I could peak in and see him without him seeing me.
From crawling until about 18 months: 30-60 minutes once a day. To make sure they are safe and you don’t have to “rescue” them, you want this to be in a crib or play pen. I used the crib .
18 months or older: 45 to 90 minutes once a day. I normally did 45 minutes, but I know stay at home moms who consistently do longer with great success. You can transition to playing in their room rather than the crib/play pen.
I've been doing independent play for over 5 years. Sometimes I'm great at doing it consistently. Then we get busy and I don't do it regularly, this often happens around the holidays, when kids get sick, and when we travel. If this happens, don’t worry. Release the mom guilt. Once you are back in our normal routine, it takes a few days to get back on track. It can feel daunting to restart, but every time I do, I am so grateful that this is part of our family. I love that time, and now that my oldest is a school-aged child, I see how creative and imaginative he is during that time.